THOMAS Jefferson and John Adams. Two men who helped frame the world's most moving picture. Presidents and political rivals, yet friends. Old men who died on the same day — July 4, 1826, the jubilee birthday of the United States of America.
And two other presidents, both Midwest natives who faced hostility, one from his rebellious fellow countrymen and the other from the claws of the Russian bear.
Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan commemorated the nation's birthday 118 years apart, Lincoln in 1863 after the Union victory at Vicksburg and Reagan in 1981 in his first year in office. Lincoln's remarks were impromptu, yet his words bore a mark that would be stamped into the permanent record later that year in the Gettsyburg Address. Reagan's scripted remarks wafted with the optimism for which he was famous. Below are excerpts from what these two men had to say.
Abraham Lincoln, 1863:
How long ago is it? Eighty odd years since, upon the Fourth day of July, for the first time in the world, a union body of representatives was assembled to declare as a self-evident truth that all men were created equal. That was the birthday of the United States of America. Since then the fourth day of July has had several very peculiar recognitions.
The two most distinguished men who framed and supported that paper, including the particular declaration I have mentioned, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the one having framed it, and the other sustained it most ably in debate, the only two of the 55 or 56 who signed it, I believe, who were ever president of the United States, precisely 50 years after they put their hands to that paper it pleased the Almighty God to take away from this stage of action on the Fourth of July. This extraordinary coincidence we can understand to be a dispensation of the Almighty Ruler of Events.
Another of our presidents, five years afterward, was called from this stage of existence on the same day of the month, and now on this Fourth of July just past, when a gigantic rebellion has risen in the land, precisely at the bottom of which is an effort to overthrow that principle “that all men are created equal,” we have a surrender of one of their most powerful positions and powerful armies forced upon them on that very day ... on the fourth the enemies of the declaration that all men are created equal had to turn tail and run.
Gentlemen, this is a glorious theme and a glorious occasion for a speech, but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the theme and worthy of the occasion. I would like to speak in all praise that is due to the many brave officers and soldiers who have fought in the cause of the Union and liberties of this country from the beginning of this war, not on occasions of success, but upon the more trying occasions of the want of success. I say I would like to speak in praise of these men, particularizing their deeds, but I am unprepared ... And now I have said about as much as I ought to say in this impromptu manner, and if you please, I'll take the music.
Ronald Reagan, 1981:
For one who was born and grew up in the small towns of the Midwest, there is a special kind of nostalgia about the Fourth of July. I remember it as a day almost as long-anticipated as Christmas. This was helped along by the appearance in store windows of all kinds of fireworks and colorful posters advertising them with vivid pictures.
No later than the third of July — sometimes earlier — Dad would bring home what he felt he could afford to see go up in smoke and flame. We'd count and recount the number of firecrackers, display pieces and other things and go to bed determined to be up with the sun so as to offer the first, thunderous notice of the Fourth of July.
I'm afraid we didn't give too much thought to the meaning of the day. ... But enough of nostalgia. Somewhere in our growing up we began to be aware of the meaning of days and with that awareness came the birth of patriotism. July Fourth is the birthday of our nation. I believed as a boy, and believe even more today, that it is the birthday of the greatest nation on earth.
... Five million farms, quiet villages, cities that never sleep, three million square miles of forest, field, mountain and desert, 227 million people with a pedigree that includes the bloodlines of all the world. In recent years, however, I've come to think of that day as more than just the birthday of a nation. It also commemorates the only true philosophical revolution in all history.
Oh, there have been revolutions before and since ours. But those revolutions simply exchanged one set of rules for another. Ours was a revolution that changed the very concept of government.
Let the Fourth of July always be a reminder that here in this land, for the first time, it was decided that man is born with certain God-given rights; that government is only a convenience created and managed by the people, with no powers of its own except those voluntarily granted to it by the people. We sometimes forget that great truth, and we never should.
Happy Fourth of July.
This editorial was initially published in 2011.